Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Om, Boo, Hula and Other Funny Noises

They tell me that Om is the sound of the Universe. The sound of it's creation and the sound that will be left when all the others noises are gone. Ok, so before any yogis out there start getting all zen-nazi with me [grin] can I just state for the record that my sense of humour can be a little sharp, so if that’s going to bother you – move along! There’s nothing to see here!

I’m not saying that Om is total nonsense – really I’m not! To paraphrase something my teacher read out the other morning – ‘the symbol for OM is important because the four parts represent the four states of being’. The key word here is REPRESENT.

No one suggests that the symbol for ‘Om’ IS the four states of being – that it manifests our reality or exists on some existential level. No, we accept that it’s a symbol and, as such is powerful because it REPRESENTS all these things – and symbols can be powerful – as we know from our Mudras... and the golden arches, the swastika and the swoosh... amongst other things.

On that basis, the sound Om, can be said to REPRESENT the sound of the universe and for this reason maybe it's powerful. It is also powerful for several practical reasons: it can be said that the vibration of the sound resonates and makes a physical impact and we can say that the action of the chant brings oxygen into the system, focuses the mind and regulates the breath in preparation for Ujjiyi breathing. All, important stuff.

However, the universe is at least 15 billion years old. Evidence suggests that before this there was void. After this there was gas and eventually matter. There was no life: nothing to witness these events or to create a memory of this time. Therefore no one: not you or I; not the yogic sages; no religious icons; not even the greatest scientific minds of this, or any, generation can say, with any basis of fact, what sound was made – or indeed if any sound was made – at the creation of the universe.

We can guess, we can suppose, we can, of course, mythologise – but we can’t KNOW. So to state as a fact, with a full stop at the end, that OM is the sound of the Universe, is specious.

That is not to say you can’t believe this! Believing something that has no rational basis, but which feels right on an instinctive level is the foundation of all Religion! So whilst I do not agree with this practice as a rationale for a belief system – I also realise I am in the minority on this point!

But I do think it’s important to be aware of the difference between BELIEF and FACT. And to remain open to the possibility that your own beliefs, if not based in fact, may be completely incorrect. Historically, confusion between this two crucial ‘truths’ – belief and fact – has been the cause of almost every war and every prejudice the world has seen. Currently of course, we have a climate of religious fanaticism – where confusion between belief and fact leads people to hate and even murder those who give credence to a different ‘truth’.

Furthermore, since the zealots of every persuasion tend to be loud and forceful in their opinions, whereas the rationalists tend to be more circumspect, we have reached a point where the free thinkers in our society are being steamrolled by superstition and mythology. This is a Bad Thing! This is bad for everyone!

In the spirit of Ghandi’s invocation that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world” I think it’s important that rational people, the free thinkers, speak out against superstition where it is presented as fact. I believe a rational society will be a civilised society and who knows – maybe if people can be persuaded to give more weight to the laws of nature, physics and geology – and less credence to blind faith and ‘gut feeling’ – then maybe one day we will be able to call ourselves civilised.

So I am afraid, whilst I have absolute respect for all my fellow yogis and yoginis and I do not seek to offend, I will continue to raise a gently scornful eyebrow when you assure me that you know, without any doubt, what sound was made by an explosion 15 billion years ago.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Now, Yoga

So, as you know, this month I have been mostly doing Yoga. I can’t believe I am just over a month into my course! I am stronger, fitter and healthier than I have been in a long time. To be honest I was expecting that. I wouldn’t be taking a Yoga Teacher Course if I didn’t already believe that Yoga is incredibly good for you!

So what wasn’t I expecting? I was expecting to learn a lot of new stuff from the vast cauldron of Eastern Philosophy. I was expecting this to be interesting and perhaps even insightful. But to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to actually believe much of it!

However it seems 20 odd years of determined cynicism is being stripped away, to be replaced by... what? I’m not sure yet.

In our first training session our Teacher pointed out something very obvious and crucial: that you must practice what you teach. If you are going to stand up in front of a class and encourage them challenge their body and mind, you have to live by the same rules. “Of course” I thought, “that’s obvious!” (Although, if I’m honest, it wasn’t something that had occurred to me earlier). However, in that spirit I decided to be open to whatever ideas were thrown at me, and to try and live by the principles that I was prescribed.

I am still trying to do that – although it’s not easy and is going to take a lot more time and dedication than I originally supposed. But the Constraints are fair: do not harm yourself or others; do not steal or lie; control your passions and do not be greedy or covetous. You can’t argue with that! The Observances too: purity or cleanliness; honesty; austerity or self-discipline (by far the most challenging for me – but I can’t deny I need some!) and self-study. All good. I am having trouble reconciling what the last Observance – awareness of the Divine – might mean to me as an atheist. But I am assured that Yoga is not a religion – so perhaps human endeavour and our ability to love is my ‘divinity’?

The daily practice of physical yoga as well as meditation and pranayama (breathing control) is also undeniably good for me – although requires more daily discipline than I have managed to summon so far!

So what’s the 'BUT'? Perhaps there isn’t one... except... I am not sure if I fully recognise myself anymore. I am changing.

I was thinking about my Yoga Class and what I think of my fellow students – all good things! But that led me to wonder what they think of me, and how they perceive me... and I realised I have no idea.

I have always had a very clear idea of how I am perceived. Maybe I have been wrong about that! But I always FELT that I knew. I no longer have any idea. I have stopped talking about the experiences that I used to think defined me. It was not deliberate – I’ve just become aware that I have.

You know how you have key information that you give about yourself when you meet someone: you don’t give a life story and complete self-analysis – who would listen! You give key facts, experiences – maybe not consciously – but you are giving the information that you believe will allow people to see you for who you are.

I am always very interested when people start by giving their job title! As if what they do for a living is the cornerstone of who they are. But perhaps for some people is genuinely is. In contrast, I have always enjoyed the fact that my brother refuses to discuss what he does for a living – claiming that even he doesn’t fully understand!

I used to introduce myself with my travels and some experiences (told as ‘amusing’ anecdotes – thereby displaying my sense of humour and communication/storytelling skills). This, I believed, defined me. And having that ‘Past’ was important to me. It was a foundation for who I am. I built that ‘Past’ – strived for it – to become the person I aspired to be.

I don’t do that anymore. Why not? What information do I give instead? I am not sure... perhaps I don’t introduce myself so much. It’s all starting to seem very unimportant: where I have been, what I have done, the adventures – this foundation I have built. It feels like I’ve built a beautiful Conservatory, only to discover that I don’t have a garden.

Am I just finally doing the last 10 years of growing up in this 6 months? What a crazy thought – like Dorian Grey, in a distant town somewhere, someone has cleared their attic and thrown my mental picture into the rubbish! Tomorrow, or someday soon, I will awaken to find I am AN ADULT!

But you have to loose your mind, in order to find it again, and I am told, before you can receive, you need to let go.